Rubio and Gay Marriage: Whose Vote Is He Seeking?

Rubio and Gay Marriage: Whose Vote Is He Seeking?
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Marco Rubio linked his Catholic faith to his opposition to same-sex marriage in a recent interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. His rationale for holding that position was clear – he is, after all, a self-proclaimed traditional Catholic – but less clear is how this connection will play with voters given that polls show most U.S. Catholics support the legalization of gay marriage.

Speaking to David Brody of CBN News, the Florida senator emphasized his relationship with the Catholic Church, despite earlier involvements with Mormonism and a Southern Baptist congregation. He said he and his family are “in a place where we are Roman Catholics, fully aligned with the theology and the Magisterium – the teaching, authority of the church – but also with a tremendous appreciation for, and often interaction with, our brothers and sisters in Christ who attend other denominations,” the GOP presidential candidate said.

The interview swiftly changed its focus to a broader issue: religious persecution. “We are at the water’s edge of the argument that mainstream Christian teaching is hate speech, because today we’ve reached the point in our society where if you do not support same-sex marriage, you are labeled a homophobe and a hater,” Rubio said. “So what’s the next step after that? After they are done going after individuals? The next step is to argue that the teachings of mainstream Christianity, the catechism of the Catholic Church, is hate speech and there’s a real and present danger.”

Rubio has long maintained his opposition to same-sex marriage, even if he has rarely tied that position to his faith overtly. Rather, he has explained his stance in the past by asserting the importance a traditional family structure plays in the well-being of children. Alex Conant, the Rubio campaign’s communications director, pointed in an email to a 2014 speech the senator gave at Catholic University where he espoused a traditional definition of marriage: “That is the definition of marriage that I personally support – not because I seek to discriminate against people who love someone of the same sex, but because I believe that the union of one man and one woman is a special relationship that has proven to be of great benefit to our society, our nation and our people, and therefore deserves to be elevated in our laws.”

In an April 25 appearance at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Spring Kickoff, Rubio expressed a similar rationale. “I remind everyone that marriage as an institution existed before even government itself, that the institution of marriage as one man and one woman existed before our laws existed, and that thousands of years of human history teach us a very simple truth: the ideal setting in which to raise children and instill in them values is when a mother and a father, married to each other, living in the same home, raise those children together,” he said to applause.

Rubio’s most recent statements add a new nuance to this long-held position by connecting it to his own faith. However, though the Catholic Church officially stands with him on this issue, many U.S. Catholics disagree.

A 2014 report by the Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of Catholics favor gay marriage, up 11 points from four years earlier. In fact, a higher percentage of Catholics back same-sex marriage than the 52 percent of the U.S. population as a whole that supports it. Among Hispanics (who, as of 2013, made up one-third of all Catholics in the United States), more Catholics back gay marriage than oppose it by a margin of at least 15 percentage points, with the percentage of supporters falling between 49 and 62 in various surveys. In New England, the upper Midwest, and the Southwest—where Catholics form the largest religious group—same-sex marriage is already legal.

Given the limited alignment between Rubio’s comments and the preferences of U.S. Catholics, to whom will his CBN comments appeal? Certainly not to the religiously unaffiliated—almost four out of every five support same-sex marriage, according to the 2014 Pew poll. Similarly, 60 percent of mainline Protestant church members also favor it. Only two-fifths of the membership in black Protestant denominations feel likewise, but their Democratic-leaning adherents are unlikely to be much help to Rubio’s campaign anyway.

That leaves white, evangelical Protestants, of whom four-fifths oppose same-sex marriage. The field vying for the white evangelical vote is packed, however, with Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker, and Ted Cruz all seeking support from this bloc.

Contrasted with these fellow conservative candidates, Rubio does not look particularly well-positioned. Huckabee is a former Southern Baptist pastor and president of a Christian television station, and in 2008 he won (and still enjoys) broad evangelical support. In a speech at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference this April, he said, “I do not come to you tonight with the ability to speak Spanish. But I do speak a common language: I speak Jesus.” The former Arkansas governor and victor in the 2008 Iowa caucuses has also preemptively spoken out against an approaching Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.

Walker’s father was the pastor of First Baptist Church in Plainview, Iowa, and his mother directed the congregation’s Sunday school. At the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Spring Kickoff, he read from the devotional compilation “Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence.”

Cruz is a Southern Baptist, and Santorum, although a devout traditional Catholic, drew broad evangelical support during his 2012 run for the GOP nomination when he won the Iowa caucuses and finished second to Mitt Romney in total delegates.

It may be difficult for Rubio to compete with these rivals for white evangelical Republicans, and, indeed, his stance against gay marriage does not heighten his profile vis a vis any of his GOP opponents, none of whom has come out in favor of same-sex marriage. Instead, the biggest point of contention within the Republican field on this issue is whether states or the federal government should determine the legality of gay marriage. Rubio has said that it is a state matter, as have several of his competitors.

In the final analysis, his position seems more a reflection of personal values and less a politically motivated play for votes.

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